Diarrhea Diaries: A Guide to Surviving Traveler’s Diarrhea

***Caution! This post contains serious potty humor that may not be suitable for those with a weak stomach. Reader discretion is advised.

It all started in Agra when I discovered the best deal ever: breakfast for 15 rupees. For 15 rupees (roughly 30 cents) I got two eggs any style, four pieces of toast, butter or jam, and coffee.

Amazing, right?

Wrong! And here’s why: I wouldn’t have a solid poo for the next two weeks.

Now, solid poos were already few and far between on my trip through Asia, but two days after that breakfast I went from having what doctors call “loose stools” to what I call “sporadic waterfalls.”

I had Yosemites, I had Niagaras, I had all sorts of waterfalls – and lots of them. If they sold Depends adult diapers in India, I would have bought them in a heartbeat -it was that bad.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Let’s go back to that café in Agra, as there are a few details I forgot to mention.

The first thing you should know is that I ate at this café four times. It’s not that the food was good (it wasn’t), or the coffee (it was made from powder and had mysterious oily swirls in it), but I certainly filled up on the eggs, butter, and toast. Also, I came back for dinner and ate more extremely cheap food of questionable quality. Call me incredibly cheap or call me a glutton for pain. Either would be accurate.

The next thing you need to know is that the restaurant was run by a seven-year-old and his five-year-old brother. They both worked in their pajamas.

You may be thinking to yourself, what were you doing at a restaurant run with child labor? The answer is simple: I was in India.

The five-year-old worked in the kitchen while the seven-year-old served the tables at the rooftop restaurant overlooking the Taj Mahal. He seemed rather sick, but then again, most of the kids I saw in Agra looked pretty sick.

An old man overlooked the operation from a mauve couch in his house below the restaurant. He didn’t move, but he barked orders (at what were presumably his kids) throughout each meal.

Looking back, I should never have eaten at that place. But, it had a great view and I kinda felt sorry for the kids when they lured me in with their 15-rupee deal.

“Best deal in town,” they said, and I couldn’t argue with them. It was true.

Fast-forward 36 hours later. I’m on an overnight train headed from Agra to Jodhpur, “The Blue City” on the edge of the Great Thar Desert.  I awake in the middle of the night feeling funny, search for my dung roll (aka toilet paper) and head to the toilet. Squatting over a filthy stainless steel hole, feeling the breeze from the tracks below, it began.

I wasn’t in waterfall mode yet, but that time was fast approaching.

When I arrived in Jodhpur, every guesthouse was booked… except the Green Guesthouse. The concrete walls were textured with chipping flakes of sea foam green paint and the door to my room was made of mesh. Oh, and the toilet just so happened to be up two sets of stairs and on the far side of a rooftop patio.

The next two days were a workout in more ways than one. Not only was I running up and down stairs, but once I got there, I spent several minutes in squat position (a serious quad builder). And let’s be honest, this wasn’t the kind of toilet you read your Chicken Soup for the Soul on.

I still managed to roam the town. What can I say? I’m a zealous traveler who won’t let massive stomach cramps and bouts of waterfalls cascading out of my bum let me down – not when I can go to the pharmacy and self prescribe myself a magic cocktail.

After spending most of my first day in Jodhpur in bed, I vowed to walk around the second day, exploring both the massive fort and the hilltop Umaid Bhawan Palace. I clocked in three waterfalls at the fort and thought I had nothing left when I reached the palace. Right after taking a decidedly bizarre picture with a wildly mustachioed palace guard, I turned in a panic and made a mad dash for the outhouse. It seems there was a never-ending supply of geysers just waiting to erupt from my butt.

On an evening walk through town on my last night in Jodpur, I did something I haven’t done in 26 years. I pood my pants. Not a lot. But enough. It wasn’t Niagara Falls; it was more like leaky faucet.

Miraculously, things improved after that. The waterfalls became less frequent and more bearable and slowly I graduated to loose stools (a vast improvement).

Once you poo your pants, you’ve hit rock bottom. It’s all uphill from there!

——–

Back home I never talk about my poo, but on the road in less developed countries, it’s a daily topic. Sometimes an hourly topic. And it’s not just me. Strike up a conversation with strangers in a café in India and the conversation will inevitably harken back to poo.

“Did you get sick yet?”

“Whole day on the toilet?”

“Hospitalized!?!?”

Just when you’re knee deep in a stranger’s poo story, someone in the group excuses themselves, reaching into their bag for some toilet paper with a knowing smile.

“Wish me luck,” they say, winking.

Your gunna need it buddy!

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“Are You Liking India?”

“India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great-grandmother of tradition.”

-Mark Twain

Landing in India is like landing on another planet.  There’s no place on Earth quite like it.

It’s the ultimate travelers test.  It provokes your senses, demanding them to breach the extreme boundaries of their limitations.  You smell the most horrific smells.  You see the most audacious sites.  You hear the most deafening noises.  And, more than anything else, you feel such strong emotions that it threatens to overwhelm you.

In Don Delillo’s The Names, a local on the street asks, “Are you liking India?”  “Yes,” the Westerner replies, “although I would have to say it goes beyond liking in almost every direction.”

Life in India has its own set of rules that are utterly foreign to the foreigner.  Respect and privacy carry altogether different meanings.  It’s easy to misunderstand it all, casting the sari-clad characters around you in a demonic light.  It takes a while to get used to the pushing, the burping, and the screeching sounds emitted as your neighbors form the most gelatinous balls of spit to coat the muddy streets.

I’ve heard stories of several travelers who, after 3 days in the country, packed up their bags and caught the first plane back home.  I can’t blame them.  India is not for the faint of heart.  It’s certainly not for the romantics.  But, I could not imagine a more amazing place than India to learn about humanity.  The streets of India are both an explosion and celebration of the human condition.

That said, I have to be careful not to generalize the people or the country as a whole.  With 16 major languages, 1,652 dialects, 5 main religions, over 2,000 castes, thousands of Gods, and the remains of over 500 former kingdoms, India is not so easy encapsulated.  India is much more diverse than most Westerners imagine.  There is nothing typical about India and there is no typical Indian.

Most Westerns enter this country at Mumbai (Bombay) or New Delhi.  I arrived at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata (Calcutta).

Some might describe this as being tossed directly into the fire.  My taxi driver from the airport put it best.  “You see this…” he paused to swerve around a cow in the middle of the road.  “This is Kolkota.  Welcome.  Welcome to the zoo.  Kolkota…” he waved his hands wildly, “India’s zoo.”

Kolkata has always lagged behind the nation’s other modernizing megacities.  Mother Theresa gave the city a face, albeit the face of extreme poverty and destitution.

Entering Kolkata was like receiving the golden ticket to a traveling depression-era freak show.  Yet, the excitement and utter curiosity of it all soon waned and manifest itself in an overwhelming sadness.  A man crawled past on all fours, another contorted himself at the side of the street hoping for a rupee.  Women shoved their babies in my face while pleading for money.  Naked kids clamored up my back, demanding payment.

Further down the street, I encountered the chalk etching of a man’s body decorated with patches of crimson red.   On the corner by my guesthouse, a man sat in a daze as a team of westerners prepared for an ad hoc operation on his flesh-exposed arm.

This was my introduction to the nation.  Though by no means an all-encompassing generalization of my experience as a whole, it certainly set the tone and begged me to question, “Can I really spend two months in this country without going insane.”

Maybe traveling in India with a bigger budget would have made my experience more pleasurable, but I set aside a meager $10 a day, which found me in the kind of accommodation you don’t tell your folks about back home.

In Kolata, I slept on a thin brick of a mattress that was swarming with bedbugs.  Fuchsia paint peeled off the cracked walls and a spout from the ceiling set a torrent of cold water down for bathing.  The “western” toilet had no toilet seat, making it a hybrid western/squat.

I was photographed at intake and my details were logged into a computer from the 1980s.  Each foreigner is strictly accounted for in India.  You can’t log onto a computer at an Internet facility without first checking your passport with the attendant.

The streets of Kolkata were a blur of fast moving colors – the Bangladeshi women with their elaborate saris and the men in tight pants and polyester shirts of the 1970s.  Amidst the chaos, the hand painted busses and street signs were all decorated in a sweet, toybox font.  This widespread cuteness was unexpected and in stark contrast to the everyday realities.

The street stalls and quick eats of Kolkata were a greaseball’s glory land. Indians have a vastly different body image for the female than the west.  To be plump means you can afford some luxuries in life.  One Bangladeshi explained to me that Indians love their deep fried snacks and a well off woman will have “shiny hair and shiny lips.”

I spent my first days in India with a samosa sheen.

For such an unruly city, Kolkata has several areas of respite to escape from the busy streets and cacophony of horns.  There are quite gardens, colonial cemeteries, and tidy aircon museums.  The former capital of the British Raj, Kolkata has a jumble of colonial architectural marvels like the Victoria Memorial (which bares a striking resemblance to the White House in Washington D.C.).

I went to an actual zoo in Kolkata.  It was a back alley zoo on the edge of a gated off mansion on the fringe of town.  I had first to obtain a letter of permission from the tourism board to even visit the place.  Surprisingly, it was the most peaceful part of the city – this zoo within the zoo.

Yet, like any peaceful place in Kolkata, a community of squatters had set up homes on the fringe of the park, washing their clothes by the monkey cage and drying them on the rocks near the pheasants.

A mansion, a zoo, and a squatter settlement.

I could hardly think of a better image to describe modern India.  There are over 125,000 millionaires in the country living side by side with those who make much less in a week than the average American does in an hour.  Herein lies many of the problems.  Problems that would lead me to flee the riots and protests in upper West Bengal for Nepal just one week after entering India… But, I’m getting ahead of myself (and you can read about that in the coming weeks)!

I will never properly be able to describe India to someone who hasn’t been.  It’s impossible.  On my first call home from India, my sister said, “India.  Now that’s one place I hope I never have to go,” and I don’t think she’s the only one who feels that way.

I’d have to say of all the places I’ve been in the world, India is probably my favorite.  That said, I have never felt such hatred for a place in my life.  Never have I struggled with simultaneous love and hate like I have in India.

Yet, India casts a spell on its visitors and, like it or not, I was knee deep in the mess and trudging towards the carnival with kaleidoscope goggles.

“Are you liking India?”

It goes beyond liking in almost every direction.